Sports have been an institution in our communities for decades. It has been a vehicle to higher learning on the collegiate level, and, for a select few, a professional career has been like a winning lottery ticket. Sports have been a means to competitive glory and to a lifestyle that most people can only dream of.

Some people are athletically gifted towards the various sports that Americans crave. For that reason, many children grow up with aspirations to take their gifts as far as they can, and parents may see it as a way to pay for the expenses of college. But most parents and youth athletes do not understand how the system works, which can cripple the young athletes’ chances of making it beyond the high school level.

Times are different now. It is no longer about showing up on the first day of high school practice, working really hard and having a college scout take notice. A student and a parent have to be proactive and not just sit back and hope that a college finds them. The high school coach can only do so much, but there are many things that a player and his or her parents can do.

“It’s not that you can’t rely on your high school coach, it’s that you shouldn’t rely on your high school coach,” said Randy Taylor, director of recruiting for the National Collegiate Scouting Association. “It’s not their job. It’s your job as the high school athlete to get yourself recruited. The high school coach will help as much as they can, as much as their budget allows. Do they have video editing, all the things that you have to have to help a young athlete, male or female, get recruited? Sometimes coaches don’t have that. Maybe they’re old school and they do things a certain way. That may not be what’s needed these days for recruiting. Or they have many other athletes, and they teach a class, and they have their own families.”

Being recruited takes planning, and it has to start early. For athletes entering their senior year, if coaches are not already calling them, then they are way behind and they have to get on the grind right away. Even by an athlete’s junior year, many colleges have already eyed the players that they are going to go after.

“There are already two eighth graders that have been offered football scholarships,” Taylor said. “That’s the class of 2018. The recruiting process starts early. Ninth-grade English is just as important as 12th-grade English. The college coaches are always evaluating athletes. If you know that the coaches are starting early, then you have to start being a better prospect early.”

The Antelope Valley through the years has produced a number or professional athletes. The latest of these sports stars is DeShawn Shead, cornerback for the World Champion Seattle Seahawks. Shead prepped at Highland High School and went on to Portland State University. Other local prepsters who advanced to the professional ranks include Jamel White who played in the National Football League from 2000-2005, John Janata (1983) and Tony Reed (1977-1981). Major League Baseball has also seen its share of athletes hailing from the region, including Casey Frickert of the Kansas City Royals (2007), Francisco Rosado of the Detroit Tigers (2001) and Justin Rethwisch of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001).

Being evaluated is of great importance for an athlete. Colleges host camps where high schoolers are run through various sport specific drills as university coaches search for talent. Most of these camps are held during the off-season and the summer. It is extremely valuable to attend these camps because college coaches cannot attend most games. Having the athletes on their campus, seeing them with their own eyes, being able to put them through drills and personally speaking with them helps them narrow down the field of players that they are looking for. Because of this, parents and athletes should contact college athletic departments to find out when and where colleges will be hosting camps.

It is also important to know who to stay in contact with. Most college programs have a coach who recruits certain areas. Staying on that coach’s radar will greatly enhance an athlete’s chances of being noticed. Finding out who that recruiter is is as simple as making a phone call to the college’s athletic department.

Taylor does warn people, before an athlete goes to a camp and puts him or herself on a recruiter’s radar, that they must be prepared. You only have one chance to make a first impression. So an athlete needs to excel at their sport. That’s where training comes into play, and again, an athlete cannot totally count on their high school coach in that department either.

“The high school (football) coach, they have like 60 guys that they have to control,” said Ron Jenkins, founder of QB/WR Top Gun Academy. “When they’re putting in the offense or the defense, they’re just trying to line them up and tell them what to do. They just don’t have the time to sit down with the players, one-on-one, and show the kid exactly what to do.”

Henry Bell and Ron Allen, co-founders of B2G Sports, echo those sentiments.

“The high school coaches are not able to give these kids the time that we’re able to spend with them to focus on skill training,” Bell said. “It’s really more of a supplement to what the high school coaches are doing. They’re doing X’s and O’s, and the athletes come to us to get tutored on football training.”

“We teach them how to be better individual players so that they can go execute the schemes for their high school team,” Allen said. “A lot of coaches do not have the time to teach every individual player and teach them their position. They’re more so teaching the whole scheme. They teach the defense as a whole; they teach the offense as a whole. They teach the concepts of the play that they’re calling. We teach the kids to be better individuals so they can execute their role within that playbook. That way the kids go back as better players in their system.”

B2G Sports has a long list of players that trained with them and earned college scholarships, and a number of them have made it to the professional level. The extra training provided by Allen and Hill, who both played high school sports in Los Angeles, made a major difference.

The same can be said for California Supreme, which is one of the best basketball programs in Los Angeles, and has sent a number of boys and girls to college on athletic scholarships. Founder Gary Franklin, who attended Dorsey High School, believes that a higher level of training is of great importance. To be one of the best, a player needs to be surrounded by the best. A player has to compete against the best talent around.

“I think that playing in the park leagues and at the local YMCAs, it’s just the level of talent is not there,” Franklin said. “Because there is not a lot of practice time, there is not a lot of skill development going on.

“We’re able to see what it looks like from a college standpoint of where guys need to be,” Franklin continued. “We can see some of the guys’ raw talent, their athleticism, their size, and we can figure out how to hone that into becoming an elite college basketball player. That’s what we build here at California Supreme.”

To be a collegiate, and even professional-caliber player, an athlete needs to train like one. Most high schools have limited funds, and may not have coaches who are experts in certain areas, which is why it is important to work with somebody who specializes in training for a certain sport. Westchester High School alumnae Jeff Johnson of Elite Athletes is one of those coaches, as he trains NFL, NBA, and several college players. His youth athletes receive the same type of training, and many them have had the opportunity to train along side Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson. Some of these youngsters are already obtaining college scholarships.

“We have the same coaching intensity and enthusiasm for the kids as we have for the pro and college players,” Johnson said. “The warm ups are all the same. The majority of the drills are all the same. We’re developing quickness, agility, core stabilization, balance, and basic hand-eye coordination. We work on their coordinating skills in motion. We try to simulate the game at practice as much possible. We do that by having functional drills.”

Becoming a great athlete and knowing how to work the system will greatly enhance a player’s chances of obtaining a free education. Along with those two things, having the right mindset is of great importance.

Courtney Morgan, who attended Westchester High School, played football at the University of Michigan, and is now UCLA Football Director of Player Development/High School Relations, offers some advice:

“I surrounded myself with people who had like minds,” Morgan said. “And I think that’s big. You hear that your network is your net worth. So I surrounded myself with people who were cool, but also handled their business.”

Morgan’s second piece of advice is directed at parents:

“Unfortunately, we put a lot pressure on our kids to go pro,” Morgan said. “A lot of times they don’t understand that when you’re telling little Johnny, in the sixth grade, that you’re going to go to the NFL or the NBA, that’s it. I feel that it is added pressure, and it can lead to severe pressure for little Johnny if it doesn’t happen for him. Chances are, you’re not going to go pro. I don’t care how good you are. I’ve seen some of the most amazing people in high school football, some of the most amazing college football players, not make it in the NFL, or in college football. Because there are a lot of variables in playing in the NFL that do not have much to do with your athletic abilities.”

Morgan also advises a high school student/athlete to stay in close contact with the academic counselors, because if a student does not have the grades, or specific classes to qualify for college, then those athletic talents are of no use to get into college.

Navigating through the college recruiting process can be extremely difficult. Having a plan though, and executing it properly, can land a young athlete at a major university. Floating by and hoping to be noticed will get them nowhere.

There are a number of youth sports camps in or near the Antelope Valley all designed to give youngsters the opportunity to learn about and participate in their favorite sport. Contact AYSO Palmdale Region 393 at (626) 568-4779; Velocity Sports Performance-Santa Clarita (661) 294-4000; Monta Vista Little League in Lancaster (661) 294-4000; Cal Lutheran University Basketball Camp in Thousand Oaks (805) 493-3195; Antelope Valley College Youth Football Camp (661) 722-6360; Antelope Valley Saints Youth Football Academy (661) 974-6179, and Lancaster Jets Youth Football at (661) 974-6179.